A Songwriter’s Story: City Squirrel, “defeat”

Written by A Songwriter's Story, Music

Stephan Bayley discusses the stories behind the songs on City Squirrel’s new album, “defeat.”

The new City Squirrel album, defeat, is a collection of songs cobbled together from outtakes, demos and the occasional polished attempt. Half of the songs are rejects from the last album. The other half were written in the months leading up to the time we recorded everything last fall. Also, there was even one track, “comfort,” written and recorded after the fact. It was done on the evening of Christmas, which followed my return from mixing the album in St. Louis. That particular song was originally recorded as a demo, but ended up being included on the album as-is.

The varying threads of emotions, beliefs, desires and the influences of other people’s lives were lyrical inspirations that I’d like to think are unique unto themselves. Yet, it is tied together by the fact that I’m singing them all, in my voice. An old friend familiar with the previous albums mentioned that he noticed I have scaled back my voice on this record, noting that it’s more of a subdued style. Was that a conscious effort? Hmmm, not really. It’s just how I ended up interpreting most of the lyrics. Now that I think back, though, there were actually a few songs where I recorded a more ‘heroic’ vocal take only to redo it with a more whispered style. In every instance, we liked the approach of the softer sounding vocals better.

We recorded some songs twice, with totally different vibes. I would say that the finished album is more of a product of evolution without a real defining “aHA!” moment of completion. I think that the feeling of ambiguity shared amongst the songs is in part what makes it whole. The fact that no two tracks’ drum sounds are alike and no two songs share the same instrumentation leaves each song with a unique feel, I’d like to believe. I see it as a collection of short stories compiled from different settings and time periods, rather than as one continuous novel. Or maybe I have that all backwards! Maybe it has snaked itself into an inseparable entity at this point, with the “aHA!” moment having already come and gone, eluding me somehow.

Of all the songs on the album, perhaps “lori blue” would win the Most Cobbled Together ribbon. It was one of the original rejects from the last album, never making it past the demo stage. The version heard on defeat is part newer demo/spontaneous drumming and vocals re-done while in St Louis mixing. Also featured are ambient crowd noises, a train, children in a classroom and backwards piano. Then of course, there’s Lori’s old drum kit, which Kevin and I put together in the living room to record just for this song. It’s an old Rogers kit that was her first one — back in the day. When Lori and I were playing in a band together in St Louis (the band was called True Wheel), she bought a fancy new set of drums and sold the blue Rogers set to me for $200. It was a good deal. “Don’t ever sell it,” she told me. “But if you do, sell it back to me!”

When I moved to the East Coast shortly afterwards, I lost contact with her. I found out later that she died alone one night in June of 1999, not wanting to be around anymore. Structurally, the song is fairly rigid. But still there’s enough haphazardry in the sweeping Moogs, off the cuff drumming by Kevin and other ongoing sounds as to render it almost glue-less, yet still with barely just enough to hang on. In the wake of this kind of event, we are torn by the need to simultaneously relate and respect, but also to reverse….a fleeting, extreme moment made permanent, and a fade to black sans rolling credits or applause from a room of adoring people. I heard from a mutual friend that she put a song by the Old 97’s on repeat on her stereo that night — the rolling credit soundtrack she apparently wanted for herself. I assume it continued to play until someone else turned it off. Drums and guns, they define you.